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Reading Delhi

'Where Is The Jamia, DU Or JNU Novel?'

Delhi is old, Delhi is a large city. But sadly, the number of books which capture the histories and landscapes of Delhi is not large.

'Where Is The Jamia, DU Or JNU Novel?'
DELHI is old, Delhi is a large city. But sadly, the number of books which capture the histories and landscapes of Delhi is not large.

It is not surprising that it’s the two imperial enclaves--Shahjahanabad and Lutyensabad--which have been the favoured settings. Nazir Ahmad wrote his novels in the late nineteenth century; his Mirat ul Urus, translated as The Bride’s Mirror and recently reprinted, has delightful descriptions of Chandni Chowk and condescending references to Hauz Qazi. Much later, Ahmed Ali wrote Twilight in Delhi, again recently reprinted, a fine account tinged with nostalgia, of life in the quiet galis behind Chandni Chowk.

Two generations of Bengali immigrants have described the city--Nirad Chaudhuri marvels at the new city around Raisina in Thy Hand, Great Anarch! while his son Dhruva writes about life in the shadow of the northern city wall in Delhi: Lights, Shades, Shadows. The Lodi Estate-centred view of Delhi comes through in Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass and Sagarika Ghose’s The Gin Drinkers. St Stephen’s College lives in Percival Spear’s India Remembered and in Dan O’Connor’s Interesting Times in India. This last book was written in the space of about six months--which statistic should tempt other individuals with a sense of the city to put pen to paper and follow his example. Delhi is an old, old city--but it has changed more in the last 70 years than in the last 700, and we need to record the changes.

What I’d like to see

The ‘urban villages’ which are not villages, ‘farmhouses’ which have no farms, ‘community centres’ which have no connection with any community, and the ‘colonies’ which have colonised the city--all landscapes peculiar to Delhi--have not found their way into any books. We need writers who will suggest to us how to look at different parts of the city; after all, the way our appreciation of the houses of the nouveaux-riches changed dramatically after Gautam Bhatia introduced the term ‘Punjabi Baroque’. Where is the ‘south Indian’ who will write a story set in the India Coffee House, where is the Jamia, DU or JNU novel?

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January 2008

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